Seanad debates

Thursday, 22 September 2022

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

European Union

10:30 am

Photo of Paul GavanPaul Gavan (Sinn Fein)
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I am very pleased that the Minister has come in because I have raised some of these issues before with her in the previous Dáil. I am delighted she is here and I thank her being here.

Six Syrian migrants, including three children, died from thirst and hunger last week while trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea to Europe. The children were aged just one, two and 12. They had drifted at sea for days before eventually being picked up by a merchant ship and taken to Sicily. More than 1,200 people have died at sea in the Mediterranean this year, adding to the tally of 25,000 deaths since 2014. Of course, that figure of 1,200 is most likely a significant underestimate of the true figure, as many human beings undertake these journeys and simply disappear without trace.

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, UNHCR, these deaths are a direct result of the EU's decision to prioritise border security over sea rescue and says that the EU has abdicated its responsibility to ensure search and rescue in the Mediterranean and that no EU ships actively patrol anywhere near where most boats enter distress.

What is even more disturbing is the EU decision to effectively outsource search and rescue to a group of bandits and criminals who go by the name of the Libyan Coast Guard. I have raised that issue with the Minister before. The role of the Libyan Coast Guard is not to save people but, rather, to round them up, push them back and incarcerate them where they are subject to murder, extortion, torture, rape and slavery. A UN Human Rights Council investigation has found that the Libyan Coast Guard has been involved in "the commission of serious violations, abuses and crimes, including crimes against humanity and war crimes, against the most vulnerable". If the Minister has taken the time to read the book by the award-winning Irish journalist, Sally Hayden, entitled My Fourth Time, We Drowned, she will already know all of this and, yet, the EU is happy to continue to train and fund this so-called coast guard.

The same EU governments and institutions have largely turned a blind eye to unlawful and dangerous push backs of boats to Turkey by Greece in the Aegean Sea. These push backs by the Greek authorities have resulted in 513 separate cases being filed at the European Court of Human Rights. A host of well-respected human rights NGOs have declared that Greece is involved with push backs, including the UNHCR, the committee for the prevention of torture, the International Organization of Migration, the UN special rapporteur, Mary Lawlor, who is another fine Irish woman, and the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, to name just a few.

Numerous harrowing videos available on social media show masked men on boats, that are clearly identifiable as Hellenic coast guard police, involved in push backs involving terror and violence. Last Monday, I directly challenged the Greek minister for migration, Notis Mitarachi, during a committee meeting of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, PACE, that I chaired. His response was to declare all of this evidence and testimonies to be, "fake news". Who does that remind the Minister of?

Another very sinister development is the criminalisation of human rights defenders across Europe. Human rights defenders and journalists who have been involved in providing humanitarian assistance to migrants and asylum seekers are the main targets of persistent acts of harassment and intimidation. Sarah Mardini, the Syrian competitive swimmer who was hailed as a hero for saving refugees when she swam out to sea to save a boat and pulled it back to shore, is among dozens of humanitarian workers in Greece facing charges that could see them imprisoned for decades. Indeed, an Irishman, Seán Binder, is facing up to 25 years in jail if convicted of espionage and other charges for the crime of trying to save lives in the territorial waters of Greece. Human Rights Watch has likened these court actions to putting life saving on trial.

The Government is in a unique position to make a difference here. Our Government holds the presidency of the committee of ministers at the Council of Europe, which will be addressed by the Minister of State, Thomas Byrne, the week after next. Will the Government make a clear call for the EU to urgently increase search-and-rescue missions to save lives? Will it condemn the ongoing EU support for the disgraced Libyan Coast Guard? Will the Minister clearly call for an end to push backs by the Greek Government and, indeed, all governments? Will the Government condemn the criminalisation of human-rights defenders?

Photo of Helen McEnteeHelen McEntee (Meath East, Fine Gael)
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My colleague sends his apologies for not being able to be here but I am pleased to be able to take this matter. The Government recognises and the Minister, in particular, has argued that the migration crisis confronting Europe is a major challenge that needs to be urgently addressed. It is not a straightforward fix but something on which we need to get a handle. Otherwise, the ordinary men, women and, indeed, babies and children about which the Senator just spoke, will continue to die making these dangerous crossings into the EU, including the Mediterranean and Aegean seas.

The terrible events in Ukraine have shown us that the need to flea can arise anywhere in the world. Migration is not just something that happens to other parts of the world, but it does indeed have wide-ranging causes and effects and can impact anyone, anywhere. The world currently faces an unprecedented series of humanitarian crises such as the food-security crisis which is indeed exasperated by Russia's aggression against Ukraine. These, in addition to longer-standing issues of poverty, instability and lack of opportunity, leave many people feeling that their only choice is to leave their home and risk perilous journeys to what they hope will be a better life. These journeys all too often end in tragedy.

Ireland has consistently stated that it believes migration should be safe, orderly and regular and we are absolutely committed to the global compact for safe, orderly and regular migration which was agreed in the UN in 2018. This followed on from the New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants, co-facilitated by Ireland in 2016, where UN member states recognised the need for a comprehensive approach to human mobility and enhanced co-operation at the global level. The Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration aims to reduce the risks and vulnerability that migrants face at different stages of migration, by respecting, protecting and fulfilling their human rights and providing them with care and assistance.The global compact aims to reduce the risks and vulnerabilities migrants face at different stages of migration by respecting, protecting and fulfilling their human rights and providing them with care and assistance. It also seeks to address the legitimate concerns of states and communities on the issue of migration and strives to create conducive conditions that enable all migrants to participate in and contribute to socioeconomic development.

We have consistently urged effective action at EU level. We fully support EU efforts to deal with the migration issue comprehensively and holistically, including through resettlement and increased legal pathways for migration; addressing root causes of forced migration, which the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Coveney, has championed and stressed, particularly among our African colleagues; and reforming the common European asylum system. We need to prevent the crossings and behaviour mentioned by the Senator by offering other solutions to people.

Migration is a huge challenge for many of our partners, including our front-line partners, some of which have been mentioned by the Senator. They include Greece, Italy and Malta. We have consistently urged the need for fairer burden-sharing and have stated there must be greater solidarity and responsibility on the part of all if any progress is to be made. Progress is slow, which is extremely frustrating. We are continuing to engage constructively in discussions on the Commission's migration pact proposals, which offer a template for the kind of collective response I have outlined and that is needed by the EU to address this crisis.

Regarding our own response, we have tried to step up wherever and whenever possible. Since 2015, Ireland has accepted nearly 3,800 people under the Irish refugee protection programme. The current phase will see Ireland welcome up to 2,900 people between 2020 to 2023. This includes people who have been forced to flee Afghanistan.

Of course, we have to date also welcomed over 50,000 Ukrainians fleeing Russia's illegal war and invasion. I have no doubt that this number will increase.

Ireland is supporting humanitarian responses worldwide with an allocation of €113 million for Irish Aid's humanitarian action in 2022, including funding of €24 million to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, UNHCR.

Ireland has also provided humanitarian assistance, in solidarity with other member states, by pledging to take people rescued in the Mediterranean and to process their applications for international protection. Where there are issues in the Mediterranean, Ireland has never been found wanting. Where our help has been sought, we have always stepped up and made sure that help has been offered. By way of example, we were very pleased to welcome 21 asylum seekers, transferred from Malta last year, as a gesture of solidarity and humanitarian assistance. These actions are a vital part of upholding our responsibilities in helping those fleeing the most harrowing of circumstances, such as war and persecution.

Photo of Paul GavanPaul Gavan (Sinn Fein)
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I thank the Minister for the response. I am a little disappointed because the greatest human rights scandal of the 21st century is people losing their lives in the Mediterranean and the Greek seas. The reason they are losing their lives, according to the UNHCR, is the absence of search-and-rescue operations by governments. I have made a clear request to the Minister this morning to make the call to increase search-and-rescue operations by governments in the EU. Unfortunately, she has not yet said this is a clear call that the Irish Government will make. I hope she will in her final response.

I genuinely cannot understand, and do not believe there is any excuse for, the complete silence of the Irish Government on the EU support for the Libyan coastguard. This is an organisation that is involved in rape, torture, murder and war crimes. This has been detailed. Silence is not a good enough response. We are chairing the Council of Europe Committee of Ministers. I want to see an Irish Minister stand up for human rights and call out these crimes, and also call on our brothers and sisters in Greece to ensure push-backs are brought to an end. Of course, we need to see equal burden-sharing and greater support for Greece, but, above all, we need to speak up for human rights; otherwise, what is the point in our having such a high position at the committee of ministers?

Photo of Helen McEnteeHelen McEntee (Meath East, Fine Gael)
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I utterly condemn those who are taking advantage of vulnerable people, encouraging people to cross the Mediterranean and sending people to their death. I utterly condemn those who are mistreating those seeking help. I stress that Ireland has always used its voice, as a small country on the periphery of what is happening, to speak up for those who need our help, encourage a more comprehensive and holistic response, and encourage burden-sharing. We have always offered support where it is needed, be it through taking in migrants or carrying out search-and-rescue missions, and we will continue to encourage the type of response needed to protect as many people as possible. The ultimate objective should be to get to the root cause and prevent people from crossing in the first instance. That is something that the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Coveney, will continue to champion in his role and while we hold the Presidency of the Council of Europe. I utterly condemn those who are mistreating people and profiteering from those who are trying to flee to safety. We will continue to do everything we can to support and help the latter.